Sunday, April 22, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: National Ransom

Elvis Costello's last grand album brings us to the end of the countdown and a few days away from his Spinning Songbook concert in Clearwater. 

National Ransom is an epic record with 16 songs featuring members of the Imposters and the Sugarcanes as well as guest stars like Vince Gill and Leo Russell.  The end result though is a challenging album that works better as a collection of songs. 

The album goes through so many different styles of music, from a variety of time periods, that it can be jarring at times. Released in 2010, it kicks off with a timely title cut about the financial crisis, followed by a song about a struggling performer in the '30s and a song about Katrina before going further back into the '20s for "Slow Drag With Josephine." This is all in the first four songs. 

That's not to say that these songs aren't great, "Jimmie Standing In The Rain" and "Josephine" are some of the best songs he's ever written along with others in this album, but, for me at least, they seem isolated from one another and result in an album that feels disjointed.

"Stations of The Cross" is the Katrina song mentioned above and it's a far more sorrowful song than anything on River In Reverse. If there is a recurring theme in National Ransom is death and this song is the most vivid, with the line about "faces like meat spoiling" in the storm's aftermath being particularly gruesome. 

"You Hung The Moon" is a beautiful but slightly out of place orchestral ballad about a family trying to contact their dead soldier son, killed for defecting. "Bullets For The New-Born King" is about the assassination of a recently elected leader and the poignant "One Bell Ringing" deals with the 2005 of Jean Charles de Menezes, killed by London police after being misidentified as a suspect in the 7/7 bombings.  

Again, these are excellent songs but to hear "The Spell That You Cast," a fun rockabilly number about a bewitching moll, after "One Bell Ringing" totally takes away from the impact of such a solemn song.

The same happens when you go from the rollicking hard-luck story of an aspiring starlet in "Church Underground," one of the songs in the album that truly rocks, to the Jazz hall sounds of "You Hung The Moon." 

The theme of death returns in "All These Strangers," a hypnotic rant that seems to be someone's final words. It's another reflective tune that takes a while to warm up to one that seems to be a fitting end until it's disrupted by the upbeat Jazz number "A Voice In The Dark." Set in the '30s, this song comes as a relief after the heavy subject matter across the rest of the album.

This was also the first album where I some of the songs before they were recorded, something that might have hurt my expectations. "Five Small Words" was performed with the Sugarcanes on tour and recorded with two of the Imposters, giving it a Western feel that loses the momentum of the frenzied live version.

"I Lost You," co-written with Jim Lauderdale, featured vocals by both during its live outings, something that was sadly changed when it was time to record it.

One song I loved, simply because I could see myself as the male character within it, is "That's Not The Part Of Him You're Leaving." I saw it live in Jacksonville and heard it many times on bootlegs and thought it was an immediate classic. An example of Costello turning a common occurrence among women and men who are "friends" and calling them out on it. But I think I ruined it with those advance listens, because when I heard the studio version I couldn't help but feel that something was missing.

In fact, that's how I feel about the whole album but when one of it's songs comes on, all alone, I end up doing what I do with some of my favorite Costello songs. Enjoy it immensely.

Classics: "Jimmie Standing In The Rain," "Stations Of The Cross," "Slow Drag With Josephine," "Dr. Watson, I Presume," "One Bell Ringing," "That's Not The Part Of Him You're Leaving."

Songs I'd like to hear live: "Stations Of The Cross," "Church Underground,"  "Dr. Watson, I Presume," "One Bell Ringing,"

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